Reflections on the Freedom of Speech


Improv AZ's Fake Protest Part Deux by Sheila Dee

Improv AZ’s Fake Protest Part Deux by Sheila Dee

Free Speech Week occurs this month!

I was out walking my dog yesterday morning when I received a surprising and disappointing email. I responded with a pretty loud, “FUCK!” I think everyone within a half block of me who wasn’t wearing earbuds heard me. As I finished my walk, I started reflecting on the freedom of speech.

As a flash mobber and an outspoken blogger, I’m grateful we have the freedom of speech in the United States. When I have strong feelings about a topic, I get to express them. People in some other countries aren’t so lucky.

I’m also a big fan of the idea that you have to accept the consequences of what you do and say. Now, I like the word “fuck” as much as I like words like “superfluous” and “misanthropic.” Speech is a wonderful powerful thing. But not everyone likes what I have to say or the way I say it sometimes, but when I say something, I own it. And I completely accept it when people dislike me because I share my points of view. I may not like it when people disagree with me, but I accept it.

My mantra is “Don’t post anything online that you wouldn’t put on the front page of the newspaper.” The same concept applies to anything in public. If you say it, own it. If you realize after the fact that you said something you shouldn’t have, or you shared your view based on incomplete data, apologize for it.

Despite our right to share our feelings and opinions, the freedom of speech isn’t completely free. We accept restrictions on our First Amendment rights based on time, place, and manner all the time. We can’t yell “Fire!” in a crowded theatre where there are no flames present. We can’t threaten the life of the President. We accept that you must be 18 years old to purchase or create pornographic images. I won’t wear my shirt that says “Do Epic Shit” across the back to establishments where children are generally present, or at least I put a jacket over it. We accept these limitations as necessary for the betterment of society.

When we celebrate our right to the freedom of speech, we need to respect others’ right to express themselves too. There are times when I hear people who make my stomach churn and my blood boil and the only thing I can do is walk away, which is not always easy when you live in Arizona. But I respect their right to express their views.

A few years ago I was on a run and I encountered a group of people protesting in front of a Planned Parenthood. As I approached them I cheered, “Go First Amendment!” When one of them offered me a pamphlet, I declined and said, “Oh no. I support abortion.”  If I want to dance in the streets and express my views in my forum, I have to respect their right to peacefully protest on public property.

Woman Jailed for Refusing to Deactivate her Facebook Account

When I Was Just a Baby by Phanatic

I saw a disturbing article on Mashable yesterday about 18 year-old Paula Asher. Asher lives in Kentucky and according to the article, she published the following post on Facebook: “My dumbass got a DUI and I hit a car LOL.”

Asher was charged with multiple crimes when she hit a car that contained 4 passengers – thankfully none of them were hurt. The victims contacted a judge after they saw the post. The judge ordered Asher to deactivate her Facebook account. When Asher refused, the judge sentenced her to 2 days in jail for contempt of court. The judge didn’t say under which law she could give Asher such an order.

I don’t know Kentucky law, but I can’t think of any laws Asher broke with her post. She was talking about herself and didn’t mention anyone by name so I don’t think the Facebook post constitutes defamation or invasion of privacy. Intentional infliction of emotional distress generally requires outrageous behavior that was intended to result in harm. I think Asher’s decision to make such a post was stupid, but not outrageous.

Did the accident victims have a claim against Asher because of her post? I could see them being offended by the “LOL” which suggests Asher didn’t take her DUI or accident seriously, but I don’t see where someone would think it’s illegal. I can see Asher’s defense attorney being annoyed with her because she basically admitted guilt in her post. If the passengers in the other car were going to go after her for damages, I could see them pursuing extra damages for pain and suffering because of her post. I don’t see where a judge would think they had the authority to make Asher remove the post or delete her account based on this post. But there might be something in Kentucky state law that gives the judge the authority to do what she did.

I suspect Asher was not represented by counsel when she appeared in court. I would expect her attorney to question the basis for the judge’s authority to give such an order to deactivate Asher’s account and to hold her in contempt for refusing to follow it.

It would be hard to hear the order the judge gave Asher and not respond with “You’ve got to be joking” or something along those lines. I think the proper response is closer to “Your Honor, I understand that these people are upset by my Facebook post and will delete it if you wish. It was a mistake and I’m sorry. Would you please tell me what law gives judges the ability to force someone to deactivate their entire account because of one misguided post?”

Stories like this make me question whether judges receive proper training about social media sites and their authority over other people’s accounts. Stories like this are also good reminders about the importance of privacy settings and to be thoughtful when you post because you never know when you’re going to be confronted with your own words.

If you have questions about social media law, contact a social media attorney (like me) in your community.

Feel free to connect with me via TwitterGoogle+Facebook, and LinkedIn, or you can email me.
Please visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.

Can I Publish an Email in a Blog Post?

Letter of Intent by Nick Ares, Ruth Carter, Carter Law Firm

Letter of Intent by Nick Ares

My friend in California recently contacted me and said that he received an email from a professional association he belong to and that he wanted to share it in a blog post along with his response. As an Arizona attorney, I can’t provide legal advice to California clients, but it made me think about what potential legal repercussions I could face if I wanted to publish an email in a blog.

Defamation usually involves making a false statement about a person or entity to a third party that damages their reputation. Publishing a blog post is definitely a communication to a third party, but there’s no false statement if you publish the email as it was written and if your response contains your true reaction to the message.

Public Disclosure of Private Facts
Public disclosure of private facts is an invasion of privacy claim where you tell the truth about a person but you release information that a reasonable person would expect you to keep confidential and they would be highly offended if you shared it. This is the type of claim you could face if you break up with your significant other and release the sex tape you made during your relationship.

In terms of publishing an email I received, I’d review the message and the association’s rules to see if communications need to be regarded as confidential. If not, I probably wouldn’t hesitate to republish it in a blog because there’s probably nothing in it that would be high offensive to share with others.

False Light
False light is a claim where you’re accused to telling the truth about someone but you manipulate it in a way that suggests something that is false. If I were going to republish an email, I’d probably publish the entire message to avoid being accused to manipulating the message to make the person look worse than they are.

These legal claims are all state law claims. If I publish an email written to me by a person or on behalf of an organization and they get pissed at me, they’re going to sue me where they live. I’d have to check the exact verbiage of these laws in that state, not just my home state. I prefer  to not set myself up to be sued across the country and have to go there to defend myself.

EDIT: My lawyer friend reminded me of one more claim you have to think about if you’re going to publish an email in a blog post: Copyright Infringement.
The person who wrote the email likely has copyright rights in their verbiage, include the right to decide where it’s reproduced and displayed. Most people don’t register their copyrights with the U.S. Copyright Office, so if you wait three months to publish your blog post, they can only come after you for their actual damages, which will probably be lower than statutory damages. In some cases, they could still get a decent settlement.

And as always, if you’re going to push the envelope with your blog posts, it’s easier and cheaper to consult a lawyer (like me!) in advance than to have to hire one after you’ve been sued and you have to defend yourself.

Feel free to connect with me via TwitterGoogle+Facebook, and LinkedIn.
Please visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.

Flash Mobs Are Not Crimes

Improv AZ Apple Mob by Devon Christopher Adams

Improv AZ Apple Mob by Devon Christopher Adams

This post was originally published on The Undeniable Ruth in August 2011. 

It appears the term “flash mob” is being used inappropriately and its meaning is being overly broadened to include any group activity that is coordinated using social media. This year, there have been several robberies and assaults perpetrated by a group of people that appear (at least on the surface) to have been orchestrated via social media sites. The media has called them “flash mob crimes.” They make it sound like someone created a Facebook event that said, “Meet at Broadway and Main at 10pm. At exactly 10:03, we’re all going to run into the minimart, grab whatever we want, and run out.” That’s not a flash mob. That’s solicitation and possibly conspiracy. If the event actually occurs, it’s larceny and perhaps inciting a riot.

flash mob is defined as “a group of people who assemble suddenly in a public place, perform an unusual and sometimes seemingly pointless act for a brief time, then disperse, often for the purposes of entertainment and/or satire.” Flash mobs have been occurring at least since the 1970’s. In recent years, they have been orchestrated via email and social media websites; however, that does not mean that every public group activity that is coordinated via social media is a flash mob.

Where's Waldo Flash Mob by Jeff Moriarty

Where's Waldo Flash Mob by Jeff Moriarty

Flash mobs are generally light-hearted innocuous fun.  People who participate in flash mobs ride public transportation without their pants; they welcome back strangers at the airport; they have fake battles between heroes and villains; and they stand frozen in place for short periods of time. Some protests and promotional events are referred to as “flash mobs,” but technically they’re not. And any event that has a criminal intent is definitely not a flash mob.

I give the media some leeway when it comes to coining terms; however, I was deeply disturbed when I saw a legal website refer to flash mobs as including criminal behavior. It suggests the writer did not do their research on this topic.

I love flash mobs. I have been participating in them and organizing them since 2009. When Improv AZ organizes a flash mob, we do thorough research on the potential legal implications of our event. I have attended an event with pages of statutes in my back pocket to ensure that we’re acting within the confines of the law. We are diligent to inform our participants in advance of their do’s and don’ts. We may push the envelope, but we never intend to cross the line. Most of our encounters with police involve them smiling or laughing at us. At the 2010 No Pants Ride after party, a Tempe police car stopped near us and an officer yelled out, “We had a briefing about you!” And then he went about his merry way, knowing we were harmless. A bit odd and rather goofy, but harmless.

Flash mobs are harmless, playful, and unexpected events. They are not criminal acts by design. Flash mobs and crimes are two completely different phenomena.  They do not exist on the same continuum.

In other news, the flash mob community needs to send a big “thank you” to Mayor Jackson and the city of Cleveland. Mayor Jackson recently vetoed a proposed law that would have made it illegal to use social media to coordinate a flash mob.  Thank you for protecting our First Amendment rights!